To the editor:
The New York Coalition for Open Government supports repealing New York Civil Rights Law 50-a to allow for the public disclosure of police records relating to police misconduct. Transparency is critical for improving public trust in our police departments, and for bringing about greater accountability in addressing the performance of police services.
Section 50-a makes personnel records for law enforcement confidential. That includes internal affairs files, civilian complaints and disciplinary findings. Delaware is the only other state in the country that also has a law comparable to 50-a, that restricts the scope of law enforcement information available to the public.
The state’s committee on open government said in 2014 the “Freedom of Information Law today affords the public far less access to information about the activities of police departments than virtually any other public agency — even though police interact with the public on a day-to-day basis in a more visceral and tangible way than any other public employees.”
The death of Eric Garner in 2014 brought to light how 50-a shields police officers from public accountability. While being arrested for a minor offense, Mr. Garner — an African American man — was placed in a chokehold by a New York Police Department officer. Mr. Garner died after repeatedly shouting, “I can’t breathe.”
Efforts by Mr. Garner’s family to obtain disciplinary records through FOIL were denied under 50-a.
The recent death of George Floyd — an African American man killed by a Minneapolis police officer, in circumstances similar to Eric Garner’s death — has brought about protests across the United States, calling for an end to police brutality, and demanding increased transparency and accountability for law enforcement.
In Minnesota — unlike New York — police disciplinary records are accessible to the public. And through this transparency, the public was able to learn that the officer responsible for Mr. Floyd’s death was the subject of 18 police conduct complaints.
We urge you to bring greater transparency and accountability to police services by supporting the repeal of 50-a.
The author is president of the New York Coalition for Open Government. This is an abridged version of a letter sent to state lawmakers last weekend.